From asteroids capable of destroying entire species, to gamma-ray bursts and supernovae that could exterminate life on Earth, outer space has no shortage of forces that could wreak havoc on our tiny planet. But there’s something in space that seems more terrifying than any of these – something that wipes out everything it comes near. Could the Earth be swallowed by a black hole?
A black hole is an object so dense that space and time around it are inescapably modified, warped into an infinite sink. Nothing, not even light, can move fast enough to escape a black hole’s gravitational pull once it passes a certain boundary, known as the event horizon. Thus, a black hole is like a cosmic vacuum cleaner with infinite capacity, gobbling up everything in its path, and letting nothing out.
To determine whether a black hole could swallow the Earth, we first have to figure out where they are. But since they don’t emit light, how’s that possible? Fortunately, we’re able to observe their effect on the space around them. When matter approaches a black hole, the immense gravitational field accelerates it to high speed. This emits an enormous amount of light. And for objects too far away to be sucked in, the massive gravitational force still affects their orbits. If we observe several stars orbiting around an apparently empty point, a black hole could be leading the dance. Similarly, light that passes close enough to an event horizon will be deflected in a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.
Most of the black holes that we’ve found can be thought of as two main types. The smaller ones, called stellar mass black holes, have a mass up to 100 times larger than that of our sun. They’re formed when a massive star consumes all its nuclear fuel and its core collapses. We’ve observed several of these objects as close as 3000 light-years away, and there could be up to 100 million small black holes just in the Milky Way galaxy. So should we be worried? Probably not. Despite their large mass, stellar black holes only have a radius of around 300 kilometers or less, making the chances of a direct hit with us miniscule. Although because their gravitational fields can affect a planet from a large distance, they could be dangerous even without a direct collision. If a typical stellar-mass black hole were to pass in the region of Neptune, the orbit of the Earth would be considerably modified, with dire results.
Still, the combination of how small they are and how vast the galaxy is means that stellar black holes don’t give us much to worry about. But we still have to meet the second type: supermassive black holes. These have masses millions or billions times greater than that of our sun and have event horizons that could span billions of kilometers. These giants have grown to immense proportions by swallowing matter and merging with other black holes. Unlike their stellar cousins, supermassive black holes aren’t wandering through space. Instead, they lie at the center of galaxies, including our own. Our solar system is in a stable orbit around a supermassive black hole that resides at the center of the Milky Way, at a safe distance of 25,000 light-years. But that could change. If our galaxy collides with another, the Earth could be thrown towards the galactic center, close enough to the supermassive black hole to be eventually swallowed up. In fact, a collision with the Andromeda Galaxy is predicted to happen 4 billion years from now, which may not be great news for our home planet.
But before we judge them too harshly, black holes aren’t simply agents of destruction. They played a crucial role in the formation of galaxies, the building blocks of our universe. Far from being shadowy characters in the cosmic play, black holes have fundamentally contributed in making the universe a bright and astonishing place.